Photo:Vee on Flickr

Karate, the Art of the Empty Hand

Japan has had many sporting accomplishments in its rich history. From the skill and agility of its gymnasts, to the raw power and brute force of its mighty Sumo warriors. However, if there is one Japanese sport that has more international recognition than any other, it is Karate, the most widely known of Japan’s mystical martial arts.

This martial art has been the subject of hundreds of movies, TV shows and other media down the years, perhaps most famously captured in the 1984 hit US movie The Karate Kid, the story of a young high school boy struggling to contend with bullies and various emotional issues, until he is befriended by the fatherly Okinawan janitor of his apartment building, who also just happens to be a Karate master.


The movie spawned a number of sequels, and was even the source of a somewhat bizarre remake in 2011 where, despite the unchanged title, no one in the movie actually did karate and the entire story was moved to Beijing for some reason. Anyway I digress.

Photo: Dan Zen on Flickr

Contrary to what Hollywood and their ilk would have you believe Karate is not thousands, or indeed even hundreds of years old. In fact the first Karate clubs came to mainland Japan less than a century ago.

Photo: Juga Paazmaya on Flickr

Memorial stone to honour the birth place of Karate.

As was hinted at in the Karate Kid movie series, Karate does indeed find its origins in Okinawa. During Japan’s feudal period what we now call Okinawa was a largely autonomous kingdom known as Ryukyu. This de-facto independence allowed the local populous to build relatively warm and cordial relations with both their Japanese and Chinese neighbours. Cultural and economic exchanges were frequent. One of these exchanges first brought the Chinese unarmed martial arts to Okinawa. As is often the case when a foreign cultural element is assimilated into a new culture, over time there is a large degree of modification and modernization. Whilst the earliest forms of Karate were inspired by China’s various Kung Fu styles, in particular the White Crane form, modern Shotokan Karate and its various derivatives have their own, distinctive, stance, style and execution.

Photo: Juga Paazmaya on Flickr

The Okinawa Prefecture Karate museum created by Hokama Sensei.

That Karate ever found its way out of Okinawa and into the Japanese mainstream consciousness is largely credited to the efforts of the great master Gichin Funakoshi. In 1922, at the height of moves to greater integrate the indigenous Okinawan people further into Japanese society, The Japanese Ministry of Education invited Funakoshi to give a Karate demonstration in Tokyo. The demonstration was emphatically received and in 1924 Tokyo’s Keio University became the first in mainland Japan to set up its own Karate club. Several other large universities followed and by the early 1930s, most of Japan’s reputable universities had their own Karate clubs.

Increasing tension between Japan and China at the time prompted Funakoshi to take a number of steps to move Karate away from its Chinese roots and more into line with the wishes of the Japan Martial Arts Federation (Dai Nippon Butoku Kai) at the time.

These changes involved the adoption of the famous white training uniform, the karategi, the different coloured belts denoted the rank and experience level of the student (a  principle originally pioneered in Judo) and the renaming of a number of the moves, kata patterns, and other related terminology to ensure Karate was given a distinctly Japanese identity.

Photo: Nathan on Flickr

It was the advent of World War 2 that really led to a surge in Karate’s international popularity. In the wake of Japan’s eventual defeat Okinawa was annexed by the US, and remained occupied until the 1970s. during this time Karate was widely taught to the US military personnel based in Naha city and the surrounding areas. In time, this spread to the US itself, which led to explosion in Karate schools in the US throughout the 1960s and 70s as martial arts became a global phenomenon on the back of famous actors and martial artists like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris.



Photo: Michael Hultström on Flickr

Throughout this period however, the masters of the various factions within Karate fought hard to preserve the culture and discipline of the art as some other sports became more commercialized in the wake of the martial arts movie boom.



Photo: Michael Hultström on Flickr

Today Karate remains one of the world’s most popular martial arts. It may lack the Olympic recognition of its Korean cousin Tae Kwon Do, but many purists would say that this is not a bad thing. For many of today’s Karateka (Karate students) Karate is much less a sport and more an art to be perfected over a lifetime of dedication and training. Many say that through studying the martial arts, one can learn a great deal about the Japanese spirit and philosophy on life. From my own experience, I certainly find this to be true. I’ve observed in my time living here in Japan a distinctive difference between the ways Japanese and non-Japanese approach practice of arts like Karate. For many foreign  students achieving the elusive “black belt” is the gold standard. To them, a black belt confers an air of mastery and expertise that should command considerable respect.

Photo: Letitia Baker on Flickr

It is the end of a journey that can last several years.

Photo: dobie on Flickr

To the Japanese however, the black belt is not the end, rather it is just the beginning of a lifetime journey in Karate. The black belt does not convey mastery, rather it shows you are truly ready to begin learning.

It is very important to understand this differing approach when you are considering studying any martial arts in Japan. If you just want to get the certificate that says 1st Dan, or the shiny black belt that says “I’m an expert”, then perhaps Budo training in Japan isn’t for you.

Photo: Anthony on Flickr

However, if you are ready to embark on one of the most enlightening, challenging and rewarding experiences of your life, then you may have found your calling.

Karate will teach you a lot about yourself, as indeed will any martial art. Alongside the discipline and increased fitness that you gain through training there also comes a greater awareness of self. Karate builds not only the physical exterior, it strengthens your mental core.

The question is, are you up to the challenge?

Popular Posts

Related Posts